The Real 54th Massachusetts: Dr. Douglas Egerton on the Lives of United States Colored Troops in Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Nick Tarchis ’18

Two weeks ago, the Gettysburg College community was treated to a lecture by special guest Douglas Egerton, one of the recipients of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Dr. Egerton works at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches courses on race in 19th century America. Egerton’s most recent book Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America chronicles the lives of ten men from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts United States Colored Troops, documenting their experiences from the pre-war era to their deaths.

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Dr. Douglas Egerton. Photo courtesy of lemoyne.edu.

Audience members were most familiar with these regiments because of the 1989 movie “Glory,” which depicts the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops of the 54th, culminating in their famous assault on Fort Wagner. Egerton’s lecture, however, examined the lives of Shaw’s soldiers—rather than Shaw himself—and the country’s attitudes toward United States Colored Troops. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans began to ask if black citizens and former slaves would be willing to fight for a country in which many of them felt unwanted. In the South, the Confederate Government was quick to declare that, if captured, black soldiers would be enslaved and officers would be executed. While this policy would change later on, there was still a fair share of worry in the North that black troops would run from the battlefield and abandon their posts because of this Confederate threat. This was the crux of Egerton’s lecture: looking at the how the soldiers were depicted versus how they acted and examining the impact that the 54th and 55th Massachusetts had on public perception.

The history students in the crowd might have recognized Egerton’s work as “history from the bottom up.” Instead of emulating the film “Glory,” which focuses more on Shaw than the black soldiers, Egerton discussed the rank-and-file and told their stories through their own experiences. This confronts a large issue in the history field, in which many choose to study presidents, generals, kings, and other important leaders rather than opt for the harder story to tell: that of the common man. While historians such as James McPherson and Earl Hess have examined why soldiers enlisted, Egerton studies the motivations of a more marginalized group who faced institutional oppression and still chose to fight.

Egerton worked to emphasize that, unlike in the movie “Glory,” not all USCTs were escaped slaves. Those who joined the ranks as freeman—including Frederick Douglass’ sons, Charles and Lewis—saw a palpable public outcry against black troops and sought a way to prove that they would not turn and run in a battle but would fight just as bravely as white troops. This was an opportunity to reunite the nation and make it a better place for themselves and their families. For those who had escaped from bondage, however, the motivation was simple: fight for the families back in the South. Many who escaped had left someone behind, be it a wife, son, or daughter, and they wanted to ensure that they could secure their loved ones’ freedom and build a nation they could call their own.

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Print depicting the 54th Massachusetts charging Fort Wagner. Photo via Library of Congress.

Edgerton’s lecture, like his book, had a melancholy ending, as many of the troops who survived the war and served with distinction were not able to achieve the goals they had hoped. Many of them lived long lives and were able to reunite with their families, but while the South was defeated, the nation restored, and the 14th amendment ratified, some troops still faced persecution after the war. Jim Crow soon took the place of slave drivers and catchers. As for their place in memory, the soldiers were quickly forgotten by history. When the United States returned to war in the 1890s, the 1910s, and 1940s, the same issues surfaced again. The public forgot about the heroism of the USCT regiments that fought during the Civil War and again believed that black soldiers would surely run at the first sight of combat and prove to be a liability on the battlefield. “Glory” does not necessarily help combat this image, as a majority of the film is told through Shaw’s perspective and portrays many of the soldiers as runaway slaves with little to no motivation. Thankfully, historians like Dr. Egerton are working to tell these men’s stories and ensure that they will have their rightful place in American memory.

Dennis Mahan’s Leadership and Tactics: How a West Point Professor Shaped the Course of the Civil War

By Nick Tarchis ’18

This summer, while doing research at Stratford Hall, I happened across the name of one West Point professor who quite literally taught every cadet who fought in the Civil War. It is fairly common knowledge than many of the war’s great commanders were classmates together at West Point. For example, the class of 1842 contained George McClellan, James Longstreet, and John Pope. Such commanders influenced the course of the war by drawing upon their West Point education, and while they may have held different military outlooks, they all drew upon the teachings of one man: Dennis Mahan, professor of mathematics as well as military and civil engineering. Thus, Mahan, a relatively unknown figure, had a direct impact on how the war was waged during some of its most crucial days.

Professor Mahan graduated at the top of his class at West Point in 1824 and began his teaching career almost immediately after. The U.S. government even sent him to France for a number of years to observe European tactics. While abroad, he saw how the French used forts and extensive defensive positions to protect their cities. His class on military science at West Point directly correlated onto the battlefield, one of his key points being the use of fixed fortifications and defenses in theatre. Mahan also stressed the importance of using the surrounding geography to an army’s advantage. By 1863, the war came to a head when George Meade and Robert E. Lee, both students of Mahan, clashed here at Gettysburg. From the beginning of the engagement, Mahan’s teachings were visible. For example, Lee famously used the mountains around Gettysburg to mask his movement from the Army of the Potomac. Culp’s Hill is another area where Mahan’s teachings were used, though it tends to be overshadowed by other areas of the battlefield.

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Dennis Mahan. Photo via National Park Service.

This is not to say that certain areas are more important or noteworthy than others, but much of the history of Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge already has a large scholarly following. For example, the Second Corps’ action on July 3rd has been the focus of numerous books every year–most recently Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack by Phillip Tucker–while many facets of the battle still remain untouched. Pickett’s Charge often takes the spotlight when it comes to discussing the third day, but a considerable part of the battle centered around Culp’s Hill and culminated in a Confederate attack at dawn on July third. On that morning, Richard Ewell’s forces clashed with the Union 12th Corps commanded by George Greene, a descendant of the famed revolutionary general Nathaniel Greene and a classmate of Dennis Mahan. Greene clearly subscribed to Mahan’s philosophy of battle, as the Confederate attack was crushed against the Union’s strong fortifications and stymied by its defensive strategy. When the Confederates attacked, they were met with entrenchments that Union soldiers dug during the fighting. The troops were able to dig thanks to Greene’s strategy of shuttling troops from Cemetery Ridge up to Culp’s Hill and using these men to stave of the repeated attacks while others dug entrenchments. It was these defensive tactics that were vital to holding to Culp’s Hill, and if Greene and his corps had failed, the Union Army’s right flank would have collapsed in on itself.

After living and working in Gettysburg for almost four years, I have come to realize that there are many stories surrounding the battle and the war that go somewhat unnoticed to many of us. After all, visitors love to learn about Pickett’s Charge, and it is important to continue to interpret the popular parts of the battlefield. For example, Gettysburg National Military Park is meeting visitor needs by presenting three ranger programs this fall between Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and the Third day as a whole. It is important that we continue to tell the stories of these better-known sites, as it draws audiences in and makes them excited to learn more about the park and its history.

But stories like that of Dennis Mahan and his teachings also help us understand the war at a more detailed level. Due to time constraints and an overwhelming amount of content to cover in the classroom, the way Civil War history is taught can be confusing, and the maturation of leaders is a subject that we tend to save for figures like Lincoln and Grant. While some commanders definitely had an “X factor,” most were not born the strategists they became by the end of their careers. The great soldiers of the war honed their skills over a series of events. For many commanders, it began in the West Point lecture hall. Those young men then quickly found themselves in their first field test in Mexico. Not all of them stayed on a military track: Grant left the military and saw failures like the failed business and sickness that shaped him into the man we remember today, while Meade continued his military training and worked on topographical research. By the time the war started, Mahan’s students had a wide variety of experiences under their belts and began to piece together their lessons, a process that culminated in some of the greatest battles in American history.


Sources

Ranger Programs at Gettysburg.” National Park Service. Accessed October 31, 2017

Phipps, Michael. “Mahan at West Point, ‘Gallic Bias,’ and the ‘Old Army’”: The Subconscious of Leadership at Gettysburg.” National Park Service

Cullum, George. “Dennis H. Mahan.” Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Accessed October 31. 2017.